In the latest edition of Lovesourced, Alex Boniface talks to Sarina Finkelstein about her project “The New Forty-Niners”, an innovative, photography study of the modern-day gold-fever still gripping California.
Firstly, can you tell us about your background as a photographer?
Initially, photography was my ticket out of school, but then it became my main focus in it. I grew up in Missouri, the daughter of two cholera researchers who traveled often for international meetings. Because they couldn’t leave me at home alone for weeks at a time, the agreement they reached with my teachers was that I would photograph and write about the countries we visited and then present these “trip books” to the class upon our return. The operation was as low-tech as you could get. I had a teal Canon 35mm point-and-shoot that I wore around my neck everywhere we went, and my mom took the film to 60 Minute Photo when we got back to town.
I decided to major in Photography at Washington University in Saint Louis after spending a month and a half in Florence on their summer photography program. After completing the Work-Scholar Program at the Paul Strand Archive of Aperture Foundation and an internship in the archive of Magnum Photos, I was accepted into the graduate program in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2002.
Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?
I have always loved photographers who are able to get involved with their subjects, who either infiltrate their subjects’ communities or spark a collaboration with them through the production of their work. My favorite of these is “New Journalist” Danny Lyon. In terms of the formality of his images, I also respect the stark portraits of Richard Avedon. I also appreciate the descriptive qualities of August Sander’s portraits, in which the details of his subjects’ dress, tools and environment help to tell the story of their social position and Dorothea Lange, for her iconic FSA documentation of farm laborers during the Great Depression. I am captivated by the way Alec Soth strung together portraits, still lives and landscapes along the path of the Mississippi like lyrical notes in his ballad about life along the river, Sleeping by the Mississippi, and the subtle beauty of his muted color palette.
My own pictures combine a documentary sensibility with an artistic vision. I like to interact with the people I photograph before and while I’m shooting them. I don’t generally pose people, but I will ask people to freeze in a specific moment or to return to a moment or location where they would naturally find themselves. The portraits I consider most successful are ones that quietly teeter on a line between strength and vulnerability.
What was the motivation behind ‘The New Forty-Niners’ and what excited you most about it?
The New Forty-Niners began in a haphazard manner. My mother passed away in 2007, and even two years later, I was still struggling with it. It shattered my self-confidence and I lost quite a bit of my motivation. When the recession hit, I started following news stories about people who lost everything due to the hard economic times and were struggling to make it. In one of my internet searches a blurb of an article about people trying to survive the recession by gold prospecting in California, while the price of gold was at an all-time-high, popped up.
I flew out to California on a whim to see if I could find the people in the article. I did. I met them, and I spent a week or so photographing. I felt a strange connection to this particular group that was struggling to make a go of it—and I also felt a profound respect for their passion and determination.
Were the prospectors themselves receptive to your project?
I would be lying if I didn’t say there was suspicion and apprehension when I first started the project. But, just like with any project—it is a matter of establishing trust with your subjects. I very honestly and openly related my story, and they reciprocated. Over the years, it became easier, because on each return trip I had examples of images from previous trips that I could show in order to break the initial ice. Word of what I was doing also spread throughout the community, so that I would get references from one person to the next.
Do you think there’s a particular type of person who becomes a prospector?
The prospecting community is diverse. There isn’t just one type of person. There are men, and there are women. There are young, and there are old. There are fathers teaching sons. There are retirees. There are down-and-outers. There are recluses. There are veterans. There are rebels.
But, I think there’s a common thread among them—a craving for adventure, the moxie to take a chance, a feeling of determination and a respect for manual labor.
What do you think tells a truer story of California, the “gold souvenir shops, bars and motels celebrating the mining history” or the “rugged” prospectors?
It’s the dichotomy of both co-existing nearly side-by-side that tells the story of California. In the gold souvenir shops, bars and motels there is a desire to be reverent of the past as well as a chintziness in the superficial kitsch of their attempts at recreating the “ruggedness” of the Gold Rush period.
Ten miles down the road, tucked away in a remote river canyon, there are people still prospecting today. There are trappings of modernity in their camps, but there is also the obvious hunger to experience that lifestyle firsthand. I’ve tried to juxtapose these varying layers of past and present.
Pick your three favourite photos from the collection and explain why you chose them
Adolf and Martin were going out secretly prospecting at night and invited me along. We trekked to this spot through pitch darkness, with only a tiny pool of light at our feet to guide us. As we walked through woods, there was the feeling of river rocks underneath my feet that made the sound of billiard balls tumbling into pockets. As we got closer to the river where their dig site was, the soundtrack changed to a soft rush of the water, and the treetops above opened up to a sky of stars. There was a crispness to the air that rushed into your nostrils and it felt like you could literally taste the mountains. They set down their lanterns at the spot, and then there was just this quiet moment as they stared at the hole they were digging, and that was when I asked them to freeze. It was a very long exposure in which they had to stay completely still, and the foreground details were painted in with a flashlight. I wanted to capture that moment before they started digging, when they were just focused on the potential of the spot and their hopes for what gold might be found there.
If there is a “main protagonist” in the story of The New Forty-Niners, it is Martin. He was born ten miles from where I grew up in Missouri, and there is a part of me that’s intrigued by how differently our lives ended up. Martin was the first prospector who really opened up to me and let me in—he took me prospecting for the first time. Year after year, no matter where he hid out in the Angeles National Forest, I found him and took more portraits. I loved seeing the changes to his appearance over time—the weathered feeling of his skin, the wild growth of his beard—yet he always had the same intensity in his eyes.
This image ranks in my favorites because of the golden light streaming through the river canyon and the way it casts long shadows from Sparky’s legs as he walks through the dust. There’s a seemingly-religious gesture of Sparky as he walks, palms open, toward the light—similar to Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert.
What equipment do you use?
For 95% of the photographs, I used a medium-format Hasselblad and Kodak film, processed at LTI, scanned the film on an Imacon, retouched out some dust spots and then worked on the color and printed them with master printer Shamus Clisset at Laumont in New York.
Some will say that now you can get equal or better “quality” through digital (with a guzillion megapixels) than with film. However, the “quality” that I’m trying to achieve in this project—the tactility, the grain, the grit, the earth—I feel that’s the type of quality that is still unique to shooting with film. I don’t want the images to be perfect and pristine, slick or crisp. It wouldn’t marry with the subject matter. The subject matter has a history, a tradition—just like film.
What’s next for ‘The New Forty-Niners’?
It is being published by Kehrer Verlag and will be out in Germany in the fall of 2013 and in the US in April 2014.
The book is multi-faceted. It includes photographs taken of prospectors, their camps and along tourist Highway 49 in California. Throughout the book, I’ve also sprinkled quotes from the prospectors about what motivates them to do what they do, how they feel about it and the challenges they face. Pulitzer Prize–nominee San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan and London Telegraph photo critic Lucy Davies have written beautiful essays providing visual and historical context for the photographs and I wrote a statement about the experience of shooting the project.
For more information:
Find out more about Sarina and her project via her website
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